Korg's analogue renaissance continues with the Monotribe groovebox. If last year's Monotron knocked your socks off, this should leave you completely trouserless...
One of last year's more pleasant surprises was a tiny analogue synthesizer from former voltage‑controlled big‑hitters Korg. With a very low price, and bursting with presence thanks to its distinctive MS20‑derived filter, the Monotron was deservedly a hit. To follow this (unexpected?) success, Korg recently unveiled the Monotribe, an "Analogue Ribbon Station”. This consists of a souped‑up Monotron, three drum voices and a simple sequencer, and becomes the very first analogue member of Korg's 'tribe family.
Last August's Monotron review ended with hopeful speculation about small pebbles and analogue avalanches. The Monotribe's synthesizer is undeniably better endowed than its predecessor but it's still extremely simple: a monophonic synth that anyone can learn in a few minutes. There's an almost Zen‑like quality to the onboard sequencer, leading me to wonder almost from the outset whether this might become the most desired analogue groovebox since the you‑know‑what!
Perhaps anticipating the hand of history, Korg have opted for a more professional, chunky package this time. Although four of the Monotron's tiny knobs are present, the main controls are larger than before and feel ready for extensive tweakage. Interfacing is more versatile too, with sync in and out sockets provided (on mini‑jacks) and the main output promoted to a quarter‑inch jack. The headphone socket and external audio input are also mini‑jack‑based and, as before, MIDI is absent. The only digital parts of the Monotribe are its storage of a single sequencer pattern and a few global settings.
Despite being more substantial than the Monotron, the Monotribe retains its sibling's much‑prized portability, courtesy of a built‑in speaker and battery operation. It won't slip neatly into your top pocket though, having expanded into a box of novel‑sized proportions — a Stephen King novel that is. We're talking 735g even before you fit the six supplied AA batteries. These, incidentally, are quoted as giving 14 hours of life, an estimate I'd be inclined to trust based on the review model's performance. Should you prefer, power can be sucked instead from an optional 9V adaptor.
Compared to its little brother, the Monotribe is strangely imposing, a chunk of dark metal on a plastic base. Within the base is a two‑inch speaker given breathing room by four sturdy rubber feet. The speaker's response is even and undistorted over mid‑ and high‑frequency ranges, unless you douse it in resonance, when it starts to scream like a demented tom cat. Don't expect to get much impression of the bass end, though. For that, connect the rear jack to an external amp and speaker, having first allocated some free time. You'll probably need it...
The synth's single voltage-controlled oscillator is slightly unusual in that it's the first analogue oscillator I've met that can't be tuned — seriously! Korg have fitted an auto-tune circuit that maintains concert pitch at all times, and there's no way to deviate from it even if you want to. Instead of the Monotron's single wide‑ranging pitch control, an octave switch is fitted. This transposes not the oscillator but the ribbon over a generous 2' to 64' range. It therefore covers more than six octaves.
Compared with the Monotron, the ribbon has been plunged deeper into its recess, which is not an improvement when you try and play it with your fingertips. Still, at least it reminded me my nails needed cutting. It's possible to adjust the ribbon's performance in several ways, and each of them offers an edge over the previous implementation. Anyone who has tried playing Monotron solos will rejoice at the ribbon's Key mode, where the notes printed on that tiny black and white strip play back chromatically. And in tune. However, spreading this new‑found pitch accuracy over a ribbon this small highlights an important and inescapable truth: it should have been larger. I found it very difficult to reach the bottom 'A' and top 'D' other than with a stylus or similar implement, and frankly, none of the notes were easy to hit reliably.
In Wide mode, the octave selector is deactivated and the oscillator's full range is spread across the ribbon. Extravagant pitch sweeps of a type formerly the province of a tiny knob are Wide mode's speciality. The third and final mode is Narrow, closely resembling the original model's ribbon action. Thanks to auto‑tuning and the octave switch, this is a far more polished version.
The panel hosts a plentiful supply of three‑way switches, one of which sets the oscillator's waveform. The choices available are sawtooth, triangle and square, all of which sound great — they're as heavy and full as an MP's supermarket trolley. The triangle is beefier than triangles typically are, while the square wave delivers hollow 303‑type bass lines with panache. Finally, the saw is just plain fat, with no need to muck about with the spelling to press home the point. We aren't quite finished yet though because, adding a last sonic splash, is a white noise generator complete with level control. Noise can be mixed with the VCO (but not instead of it) for percussive dirt and hissing emphasis.
It's fair to say that while the Monotribe has been pumped up in some areas, it still isn't the full monosynth package. Most significantly, the 'zero release' envelope is unchanged, meaning that as soon as you take your finger off the ribbon, the synth is abruptly silenced. The slight click as this happens isn't the synth's most endearing feature either, but at least the envelope's start has received some upgrades in the form of a selection of preset attack/decay shapes. The first of these fades the decay within a couple of seconds and is great for punchy bass lines or sequences. The second is the gated envelope seen previously; it maintains a constant volume while you hold a key. The final shape has a slow attack, ready to turn acid into dubstep at the flick of a switch.
Happily, there are further tools for shaping and articulation. The low-frequency oscillator has been enhanced generously with switches that select modes, waveforms and modulation destinations. The available modes are Slow, Fast and One‑shot, the latter turning the LFO into an envelope with a contour that matches the selected waveform. The envelope's length is determined by the LFO's Rate knob.
In two of the modes (Fast and One‑shot), the LFO is key‑sync'ed. In other words, it restarts its cycle whenever a note is triggered by the ribbon or sequencer. A key‑sync'ed LFO modulating the filter, for example, becomes a source of accents, which provides much‑needed spice for sequencer patterns. Modulating the oscillator frequency instead yields pitch bends, their gratuitousness set by the LFO's depth knob. In Slow mode, the LFO cycles independently of any notes played, offering smooth filter sweeps that roll right down to a languid 0.05Hz. This is again effective during sequencer playback, as it adds movement and unpredictability. When you want to explore the downright freaky, the LFO's Fast mode can take the rate up to about 5kHz — ideal for some startling frequency modulation of the filter, oscillator, or both.
Opting for the same trio of waveforms that grace the VCO, Korg have created a deceptively capable modulation section from just a few controls. Ironically, it's the simple inclusion of a triangle wave that feels like the best new feature. Triangles are the ideal source for space‑wibbling filter noises — and for cheesy vibrato (is there any other kind?).
Speaking of wibbling (as I do far too often), I'm glad to report that the 12dB low‑pass filter is carried over intact from the Monotron. Here, the larger knobs for cutoff and resonance make a real difference, rendering filter adjustment both accurate and pleasurable. Due to analogue variations or maybe a slight internal tweak, the filter self-oscillates more readily than the Monotron's, and therefore its resonance squeals even more readily. Not that I'm complaining — far from it — the filter is fantastically wet, squelchy and alive, just as you'd hope.
Rounding off the synth controls is the VCA knob. It's another of the small ones and its job is to balance the synth's level against that of the drums. There is no single master volume.
Korg have never matched the reputation achieved by Roland for drum machines, despite producing what is arguably one of the finest examples of the genre, the Electribe ESX1. The Monotribe has three preset analogue drum voices: kick, snare and hi‑hat. Of these, the kick is clicky and distinctive, yet with sufficient low-level oomph to cut through just about anything. The boxy, organ‑style snare consists of a fairly high body level and a tappy noise component. But my personal favourite is the hi-hat, a simple noise hit that splashes beautifully into the upper regions of the audio spectrum.
Each drum has a key to select it as the current voice when programming the step sequencer. Optionally, these keys can be used to trigger the voices manually. The drums sound perfectly serviceable individually but it's as an ensemble that they really gel. The relative volumes of each are fixed and Korg have got the balance about right — at least for performance via the internal speaker. When the whole shebang is amplified, the kick is a tad pointy and prominent for my tastes, but it's also the most punchy and recognisable of the three.
As with the synth, there is an independent level control for the drums before all parts are merged at the single audio output. User modification was positively encouraged on the Monotron and if that trend continues, I suspect a popular mod will be to split off the synth and drums. Separate outputs are something I'd value highly.
The eight‑step sequencer is so lacking in sophistication you could easily write it off without a second thought. With its ability to store just one short pattern, it practically insists on performance. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a strength, not a weakness. Tempo is set by a tiny knob of clear plastic, a flashing LED shining through for visual guidance. You can restrict the tempo to within a 'normal' range of 60 to 180 bpm, but if you value freedom over control, the full range is a massive 10 to 600 bpm!
Hit Play (which also doubles as stop) and the minimal interface springs to life. Then simply select any drum part and decide on which steps it should play. Or pick the synth part, and it's up to you whether to go for a rigid, stepped bass line or something more human. For the latter, the charmingly named Flux function captures notes that fall between the steps. Suddenly — and unexpectedly — you can record fluid, wobbly basses, 303‑ish slides and the like. Recording via the ribbon leads to some deeply impressive, if random, patterns, especially when in the Wide mode. By turning Flux off after recording, the notes are effectively snapped to the nearest step. This often transforms a wild and messy improvisation into a killer groove. Admittedly not every time, but it's amazing how many useable sequences require only eight steps. As the sequence plays, you are free to make all the usual tweaks to the synth except transposition (the octave switch is connected directly before the ribbon, not the oscillator).
Gaps in a sequence can be created by switching off any (or all) of the steps for the synth part and each of the drum voices separately. You can also shorten all four parts at once by mimicking the famous Moog 960 sequencer's 'skip' function. Hold down the Active Step button and then deactivate up to seven steps. (You can't skip them all, as this would reduce the length to zero.) Since you can't record into steps that are skipped this can be used to your advantage when you need to program an exact note sequence. During recording, skip all steps but the first. Then prod about on the ribbon until you hit the note you want and move on, activating the second step and skipping safely past the one just recorded. Continue doing this throughout the whole sequence and you'll never accidentally over‑write the notes you want to keep — something difficult to do otherwise.
For the synth part only, you can change the gate time, applying new gates to existing notes. When record is active, holding the Gate button whilst playing the ribbon controller will overwrite the existing note lengths but will not alter any of the stored pitches. The further up the ribbon you travel, the longer the gates, with 100 percent (the full width of the step) available at the far right. Thus you could begin a performance with a series of very short blips and gradually lengthen them to reveal your pattern in all its glory. If you drop out of Record you can apply this effect manually and non‑destructively.
The drum parts have their own trick too: additional triggers that can be added at the half‑way point between each step. In this way you can squeeze in up to eight extra steps for every drum voice, adding double‑speed percussion over your note sequence. Great stuff.
I was initially concerned that lack of MIDI clock would prove to be a major omission. It seemed daft that you couldn't easily sync to existing gear, computers and so on. However, after experimenting with triggers from various external sources I realised my fears were unfounded and the current implementation has a lot going for it.
The sync input is designed to handle either clock pulses or a suitable audio signal. I chose a rimshot sent from one of the individual outputs of my Korg ESX1, and adjusted its pitch and volume until the Monotribe responded. Then, using a regular pattern of 16th notes, I set the drum machine running and started the 'tribe. Initially, my pattern went a bit wonky, rushing past the last four steps in a fascinating but not particularly helpful way. On inspection it turned out that an accent on the drum machine was causing this mad rush of triggers. I removed the accent and from then on my pattern played reliably. But the lure of unreliability proved irresistible and I returned to it later, programming different volumes into each step of my sync pattern, then changing the spacing and regularity of the notes sent. The results gave me a great deal of chaotic fun, and patterns I'd never have generated from a regular MIDI clock.
Alternatively, you can sync to an analogue pulse. There's a global option specifying whether the pulse leads with a positive or negative voltage, necessary if using, say, a Korg SQ10 sequencer with its inverted triggers. The Monotribe's sync output carries 5V pulses ready to drive a second Monotribe or other analogue gear such as my trusty Roland SH101. For maximum flexibility you can independently set the polarity of the sync output too. By the time you read this, Korg's iPad/iPhone app SyncKontrol should be available. It's a common clock source for multiple Monotribes, iElectribes and the like, and features tap tempo, swing and precise bpm entry, according to the promo videos.
The Monotron was priced almost as an impulse buy: something to whip out and make weird noises with at the slightest challenge to your geek credentials. The Monotribe isn't quite as cheap as some of us hoped when it was announced and naturally, the increased price invites extra scrutiny. Fortunately, it's still more affordable than genuine analogue gear tends to be, and open to modification too — something you don't get with virtual! For what it's worth, my own mods list would be short: just the splitting of the synth and drums for individual processing and the restoration of the Monotron's gate defeat for external signals, assuming that is possible.
By expanding everything but the ribbon, Korg could be accused of not being bold enough. Certainly, a larger ribbon or some kind of petite keyboard would have produced a more playable solo instrument. However, with the addition of a sequencer and drums, the Monotribe has stepped sideways into a different class — that of acid groovebox. If anyone is still petitioning Roland to remake the TB303, why not save yourself the angst and try one of these instead? I'm not pretending the Monotribe is a replacement for that legendary Bassline — the whistling MS20 filter ensures it has a markedly different character — but there is certain slippery, slidey nature common to both. Here's hoping the Monotribe doesn't have to fail dismally before someone picks it up and makes it trendy!
Adding analogue drums and a sequencer to the Monotron was a brilliant idea and even with its quirks, the Monotribe is an instrument I found hard to put down. Sure, it stores only one sequence, but that's one more than a guitar does! Taken as a complete package, the Monotribe is cute, addictive and yes, undeniably limited. This means that all the innovation and individuality has to come from you! .
There are no obvious, self‑contained Monotribe alternatives and let's be realistic, snapping up a Roland TR606 and TB303 combination at a car boot sale isn't something to build your hopes on. Even going for a Korg ER1 Electribe and a Xoxbox will set you back considerably more cash, and while there are a number of small analogue synths and drum machines from companies such as MFB in Germany, no direct equivalent suggests itself.
I also hesitate to suggest software, such as Korg's own iMS20 or Propellerhead's Rebirth for the iPad/iPhone, because that's straying way too far from the experience you'll get from the Monotribe.
Processing external audio was a nifty Monotron speciality, so I was anticipating more of the same on the Monotribe. Alas, Korg have mislaid a vital function: that of disabling the gate when an input connection is made. You must therefore trigger the ribbon to filter the external signal, but in doing you also trigger the synth. Without a way to hear the processed audio alone, external signal processing is badly flawed. This is a shame because the Monotribe's output is quieter than the Monotron's. Well, apart from a low-level hum coming through the Rhythm section — a hum that appears proportional to the number of LEDs that are lit, I noticed.